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British launch effort to keep Raphael work

London's National Gallery will try to match Getty's estimated $50-million offer for 'Madonna of the Pinks.'

November 01, 2002|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

London's National Gallery, beset by tight finances, is nevertheless launching a campaign to match the J. Paul Getty Museum's offer of an estimated $50 million for a Raphael painting owned by the Duke of Northumberland.

The 16th century work, "Madonna of the Pinks," is one of several by Raphael on display in the museum, where it has been on loan for about a decade. Authorities say it is apparently the last undisputed Raphael painting still in private ownership -- thus, its sale is probably the last chance any museum will have to acquire such an important work by the Italian Renaissance artist, who died in 1520. Getty officials confirmed Wednesday that they had a purchase agreement with the Duke of Northumberland's estate, providing the British government allows the work to leave the country.

Although Getty officials declined to discuss price, sources close to the deal put it at about $50 million, and National Gallery officials have named that amount as their fund-raising target. A gallery spokeswoman said the institution in recent days asked the British Heritage Lottery Fund for a grant of 20 million British pounds, about $31.4 million.

"We hope to raise the rest from private sources," the spokeswoman said. Losing the painting, she added, "would be a great loss to this nation. The picture has been here for 150 years."

Under British law, export of an artwork can be blocked if a government panel decides it has vital artistic or historical significance, and if a buyer within the U.K. can match the proposed sale price. Officials at the Getty and the National Gallery said the timetable for decisions on the Raphael has not yet been set, but in the past, the settling of such export-license cases has typically taken several months.

The National Gallery spokeswoman acknowledged that the odds against the institution holding onto the Raphael are steep. Although the nation's Heritage Lottery Fund has been used in the past for art purchases, the government's National Gallery funding has been curtailed of late. In mid-October, the British Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced that its "baseline annual grant" to the National Gallery would remain flat from 2001-02 through 2003-04, at about $30 million.

The gallery's director, Charles Saumarez Smith, complained publicly about the funding, and said it meant that the gallery this year would have no money set aside for acquisitions. That, he said, is a first in 50 years and a notable decline from the roughly $5 million made available in 1997. Apart from the possibility of a lottery-fund grant, the museum spokeswoman said Thursday, "we can't rely on government sources at all."

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